The Occidental and Oriental

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Saturday, January 8, 2005

It takes a certain finesse, a certain gentleness of hand to forge a harmonious blend of the oriental and occidental. In the wrong hand though it comes off as offishly awkward.

Today I visited the former royal residence of King Rama V called the Vimanmek Mansion where he lived for five years at the turn of the last century. This confection of spindles and fretwork and Victorian gingerbread forms the largest yellow teak house in the world. It also houses all the souvenirs that King Rama V could pack up and sail back in his Alameda of things western from his journeys in Europe back to his kingdom. The architecture is true to its period if not its continent but resembles more an oversized cake in the shape of a hunting lodge. The interior drips with hurricane lamps, stiff-backed button-smashed velvet and rosewood carved settees and thick white marble slabs atop clunky over-glossed wood bases and doilies are everywhere. The worse part about this museum are the myriad anachronisms like the artificial flowers, the new and poorly made imitation Victorian rugs with cheap thin fringe and large airbrushed canvases in sherbet shades propped on easels as though in a storage room. Our guides made a point to alert us to the recent gifts given to the current royal family and that was when it all started to congeal -- this really was a massive storage warehouse masquerading as a museum. Never was this more clear when our attention was drawn to a Yamaha digital player piano given to the Queen in honor of her 72nd birthday. It was playing a sped-up version of Beethoven's Ninth and proved as aurally offensive as it was visually repugnant. The restoration of already hideous furniture was made worse by the fact that they'd been "restored" so that any patina was scrapped away and then shellacked so that it mirrored the disdain of any self-respecting aesthete.

The china on the other hand was astounding and what little bits of it we were privy to see was gorgeous. King Rama V had a penchant for porcelain and collected beautiful sets. Transferware portraits featured prominently in the center of one set with a wide color band around the edges complimented with lattice gilding. The king liked it so much he had seven sets made with different colored bands for each day of the week, today it was purple.

The grounds surrounding the mansion were green and little more can be said of it other than it was still an interesting outing and without the lows how could we ever appreciate the highs? It's really no wonder it was only used as a royal residence for five years and for the past one-hundred years it's become little more than a storage unit. The best part of all is that by presenting my Grand Palace ticket stub an entrance fee was avoided. On principle alone that made me feel better.

The boat ride back to the BTS was the longest and most enjoyable because I sat in the front by the driver and it was there that I saw another abomination that has bugged me since I first saw it five days ago. A monstrosity that is exactly what the world of architecture does not need: A capital rotunda atop a modern high-rise. Seriously I can't take my eyes off of this thing. I took a picture of it because it baffles me so. If the rotunda isn't enough of an enigma the base of it is supported by Doric columns atop Doric columns and get this -- looking out onto the river is a huge cathedral-sized rose window -- go figure.

I had dinner tonight at my normal haunt and with a fellow solo traveler and she and I pondered our occidental lives within the orient. I was finally ready after a week to meet people and it was fun to talk about traveling and life and how we ended up here and where we're going. We had a terrific dinner and will probably meet up for a cocktail tomorrow evening.

Maybe it's the two gin and tonics combined with my weekly antimalarial pill but I was thinking about me and the confluence of the oriental and occidental. It's like I was trying to explain to someone back home before I left what it's like to travel to this part of the world. It's not just that I am here and you are there it's that everything here is different now and everything has changed. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the people, the pace. It's not just that I am in Bangkok not just in another place -- it's that my world is different now. I like that.

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